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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Douglas Sirk in America

The acclaim for Todd Haynes' recent film Far from Heaven has brought the spotlight back onto the work of director Douglas Sirk. Far from Heaven is essentially an homage to Sirk's glossy melodramas of the 1950s, particularly All That Heaven Allows whose story line it leans upon heavily and whose style it captures effectively.

All That Heaven Allows was only one of more than twenty Sirk pictures made for Universal during a decade in which widescreen, color film-making became the norm. At the time, however, Sirk received little respect. Although popular with film-goers, his films were generally classified as women's pictures or "weepies" by film critics of the time and seen as little more than pot-boilers intended to showcase some of Universal's top stars of that era - actors such as Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Jane Wyman, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone.

It was nearly a decade later before re-evaluation of Douglas Sirk began. Andrew Sarris was one of the first influential American critics to recognize that Sirk's dramatic, sometimes ostentatious use of color, lighting, prop, and costume was more than simply a visual style. Rather, it was Sirk's own method of commenting on the film content, drawing our attention to its truths and absurdities in a way that is both eye-catching visually and thought-provoking in its directness. The more one watches Sirk's films from this period, the more one can appreciate the effectiveness of Sirk's approach. These films are melodramatic; their basic stories almost predictable; and their stars sometimes considered among the more superficial of the time. It would be easy to dismiss them, yet once seen, they draw one back for repeated viewings because there is always something new to discover. It was Sirk's great gift to be able to deliver solid entertainment while accenting the visual components of the film medium as a way to comment on the narrow-mindedness of the social order of the times, particularly the tendency for one level of society to look down upon another. Many of his films focused on families or individuals affluent in a material sense, but emotionally or sexually starved at the same time. The endings of Sirk's films are seldom neat in a traditional Hollywood sense. Usually something gives, and it's either the accepted social norms or the happiness of the protagonists.

The Pre-Universal Period

Douglas Sirk was born Claus Detlev Sierk in Denmark in 1897 or 1900 (sources vary). After a career in the theatre and film in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s, he left Germany, eventually coming to America where he signed a contract as a writer for Columbia in 1942. Nothing came of this right away, but Sirk soon found himself involved in directing several low budget films for the poverty row studios or smaller independent producers. The first of these was Hitler's Madman (1942, PRC), which tells the story of the assassination of Nazi Richard Heydrich by the Czechs and the Nazi reprisals that resulted. John Carradine was the most well-known cast member in a film that was as detailed a look at Nazism as any made in America. Sirk's other wartime film was Summer Storm (1944, UA), which offered juicy roles to both Linda Darnell and George Sanders in a version of Chekhov's "The Shooting Party". In 1946, George Sanders also appeared in Sirk's next film, A Scandal in Paris (UA) - a model of wit and romance (sometimes known nowadays as Thieves' Holiday) that also offered a field day for character actor enthusiasts with the likes of Akim Tamiroff, Gene Lockhart, Vladimir Sokoloff, and Alan Napier among the cast. In the late 1940s, Sirk turned to crime - as a subject for his films, that is. Lured (1947, UA) and Sleep, My Love (1948, UA) are both usually classified as films noir although with their Victorian settles, neither fit the standard modern urban milieu of the traditional noir. Lured was a good showcase for the non-comedic talents of Lucille Ball while Sleep, My Love features Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and Robert Cummings expertly maneuvered through the familiar plot of the man who tries to drive his wife crazy. It is also a film that has some hints of the style of the glossy melodramas to come from Sirk. Shockproof (1949, Columbia) was more noir, this time starring Cornel Wilde and with a script co-written by Samuel Fuller. Slightly French (1949, Columbia) - a fairly conventional musical with Dorothy Lamour and Don Ameche - rounded out the decade.

Kino Video has made one of Sirk's 1940 films available on DVD with plans for one other. Lured is currently available and is recommended. The DVD is mastered in the OAR from what appears to be a rather good print. There is some speckling, but the image is bright and clear with good contrast. Blacks and whites are true with quite good shadow detail. The sound is acceptable for an unrestored film of this age. There is some hiss from time to time, and dialogue is briefly lost at a couple of splices. Unfortunately this is one of Kino's earlier releases when there was little attempt to include any supplemental information (in this case, none at all). A Scandal in Paris has been available on VHS from Kino for several years and a DVD version is planned for later in 2003. None of the other Sirk films from this period have even been available on either VHS or laserdisc, so any imminent DVD releases seem unlikely.

The Universal Period

From 1950 to 1959, Douglas Sirk directed 22 films - one for United Artists and the rest for Universal, the company with which his reputation is most often associated. The decade started slowly for Sirk with a standard undersea drama, Mystery Submarine (1950, Universal, with Macdonald Carey and Marta Toren), and then the sometimes overly earnest The First Legion (1951, UA) with Charles Boyer as a priest dealing with an apparent miracle in his hometown. Thunder on the Hill (1951, Universal, Claudette Colbert tries to prove a convicted murderess innocent) was more like it with some of the hints of style that would be become standard by mid-decade, but The Lady Pays Off (1951, Universal, with Linda Darnell and Stephen McNally) and Weekend with Father (1951, Universal, with Van Heflin and Patricia Neal) were both strictly programmers. The years 1952 and 1953 were both years of films mixing promise and standard fare. No Room for the Groom (1952, Universal, with Tony Curtis as a former soldier returning home to unexpected company), Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952, Universal, with Charles Coburn in fine form), and Meet Me at the Fair (1952, Universal, minor musical with Dan Dailey) were all in the latter category, but Take Me to Town (1953, Universal, with Ann Sheridan as a singer on the run) was Sirk's first real drama in color to display his visual flare. He followed this up with the potent All I Desire (1953, Universal, with Barbara Stanwyck as a women who first strays then returns to her family). Taza, Son of Cochise (1954, Universal, with Rock Hudson) was Sirk's only foray into western territory, but energetic and generally successful if you can accept Rock Hudson as a native American.

Then came Magnificent Obsession (1954, Universal) - the first of the films usually included when Sirk's trademark melodramas are discussed. The story had previously been filmed by Universal in 1935 with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Now with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman playing the leads (and Agnes Moorehead in support), Sirk ramped up the melodrama even more and contrasts Jane Wyman's blindness with colour so vibrant that it has to be seen to be believed. After a questionable outing about Attila the Hun (Sign of the Pagan [1954, Universal, with Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance]) and a surprisingly entertaining costumer in Ireland with Rock Hudson (Captain Lightfoot [1954, Universal]), Sirk reunited with his Magnificent Obsession cast headliners to make All That Heaven Allows (1955, Universal). This film is probably the piece-de-resistance of Sirk's career - a rich tapestry of pretension, gossip, and small-mindedness that is ignited by a woman's simple desire for emotional and sexual fulfillment. Her only "error" is to seek that fulfillment from a union that goes against all that is socially acceptable in her small town.

Sirk would direct eight more films for Universal with at least four of them mining much of the same thematic territory as Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. Written on the Wind (1956, Universal) finds Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, and Lauren Bacall entangled in an epic tale of money, back-biting, love, and nymphomania in the Texas oil fields. Battle Hymn (1957, Universal, with Rock Hudson and Martha Hyer) sees a clergyman return to military service in Korea, while The Tarnished Angels (1957, Universal) reunites Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone in an adaptation of William Faulkner's "Pylon". Finally, Imitation of Life (1959, Universal, with Lana Turner and John Gavin) was Sirk's sumptuous take on the story that had previously been filmed to good effect by John Stahl in 1934 with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. Interspersed with these films were lesser fare such as There's Always Tomorrow (1955, Universal, staid Fred MacMurray finds himself tempted by old flame Barbara Stanwyck), Interlude (1957, Universal, June Allyson comes between a composer and his wife), and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Universal, John Gavin in an Erich Maria Remarque story of doomed love during WW2). Although uncredited, Sirk is also believed to have had a significant hand in the direction of Never Say Goodbye (1956, Universal, Rock Hudson and his long separated wife attempt to reunite).

After Imitation of Life, Sirk retired to Germany where he was generally inactive in film with the exception of some work for the Munich Film School in the latter half of the 1970s. He died in Switzerland in 1987.

The Universal part of Sirk's career is fortunately partially represented on DVD. The Criterion Collection has issued two fine discs for All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind that are highly recommended. Both films are available in new anamorphic widescreen digital transfers. All That Heaven Allows is the slightly more vibrant- and accurate-looking of the two colour presentations. Its supplement package is more extensive also, including the BBC documentary Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk; a Fassbinder essay Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk; a still gallery; and the original theatrical trailer. Written on the Wind contains only a Sirk filmography that includes various stills and posters, and trailers for both Criterion releases. Universal itself has just issued a DVD of Imitation of Life. The image quality (1.85:1 anamorphic) is not quite in the same league as the Criterions. It's an issue of variability. Sometimes it looks very sharp, but at others it's soft and occasionally subject to dirt and debris. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. A number of Sirk's other 1950s films have appeared on VHS although none ever made it to laserdisc. One might hope that a good response to Imitation of Life will encourage Universal to put more Sirk out on DVD.

Anyone looking to sample the best of Sirk should look for the four existing DVDs and the one forthcoming. While awaiting further Sirk to appear on DVD, take a look at the existing VHS versions of A Scandal in Paris, Magnificent Obsession, Battle Hymn, The Tarnished Angels, and All I Desire.

New Classic Release Announcements and Rumors

There's not a whole raft of new items this time around, but what there is "is cherce" (with apologies to Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike). Thanks also to several readers who provided a few welcome tips.

In Criterion news, April 29th will see the release of The Adventures of Antoine Doinel - a five disc set of Francois Truffaut films beginning with The 400 Blows (1959) and continuing through the 60s and 70s with Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Love on the Run, and the short film Antoine and Colette. The set will include documentaries, interviews, archival materials, newsreel footage and trailers and retail for $99.95. Also coming on that date is Federico Fellini's 1952 comedy The White Sheik (original 1.37:1 aspect ratio and Italian mono, new interviews and trailers). Criterion has also acquired several films of renowned Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Among the Ozu films slated for DVD release in the fall of 2003 and later in 2004 are such classics as Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959). Finally, due to contract restrictions, Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964) is not expected to be available in Canada. For those that may not be aware, Shanghai Express (1932, Paramount, with Marlene Dietrich), and long on Criterion's release list, has been indefinitely postponed due to problems with film elements.

Fox has confirmed a new wave of war films for May 20th release. All will be presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios and will include trailers: The Blue Max (1966, George Peppard and James Mason), The Desert Fox (1951, James Mason), The Enemy Below (1957, Robert Mitchum, includes The War Situation, U-Boat Captured by Biplane and Inside the German U-boat Base at Lorient, France MovieTone News clips), 13 Rue Madeleine (1946, James Cagney, includes Captured Pictures Show How Nazi V-2 Rockey Was Born MovieTone News clip), Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, includes Tarawa: Marines Toughest Battle!, King and Nimitz View Scenes of Saipan Victory and Japs' Raid on Saipan MovieTone News clips), and Sink the Bismarck! (1960, Kenneth More). An audio commentary (possibly by Scott Eyman who did such a fine job on a similar effort for Criterion's recent Trouble in Paradise) is rumored to be in the works for John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). The April offering in Fox's Studio Classics Series, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), will be presented in 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 2.0 stereo. Extras include audio commentary by Michael Lonzo, Sylvia Stoddard and John Burlingame, a William Holden biography, MovieTone News clips, and trailers.

Warner Brothers has scheduled a May 13th release date for three war films including the first Errol Flynn film from a major studio, and a good one - Objective Burma (1945, directed by Raoul Walsh). The other two are Operation Pacific (1951, fine John Wayne WW2 actioner) and Battle Cry (1955, Raoul Walsh directs from the Leon Uris novel). The latter is a Cinemascope film that will be released in a 2.55:1 anamorphic version. Trailers are expected to be the only supplements in each case. Gay Purr-ee (1962, animation with the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet) is believed to be in WB's plans for this spring and rumor has it that Roger Ebert has recorded an audio commentary for Casablanca further fueling speculation that a Casablanca SE is in the works for later this year. WB's February release of The Cardinal (1963) will be a double-disc set with an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer of the movie sporting a newly remastered DD 2.0 surround audio track. The extras will include a two-hour documentary entitled Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker, a 1963 making-of featurette, and a trailer. King of Kings (1961, with Jeffrey Hunter) will be presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen with a new DD 5.1 audio track. The extras will include a making-of featurette, two vintage premiere newsreels, and a trailer.

Paramount has a nice beefy list of western titles for release in April (and being from Paramount, we can count on anamorphic, widescreen transfers where appropriate): Big Jake (1971, under-rated John Wayne), Copper Canyon (1950, smooth Ray Milland), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957, tense Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas), Little Big Man (1970, evergreen Dustin Hoffman), The Lonely Man (1957, moody Anthony Perkins), A Man Called Horse (1970, suffering Richard Harris), Nevada Smith (1966, persistent Steve McQueen), and Rio Lobo (1970, vengeful John Wayne). Also on the agenda are guilty pleasure The Carpetbaggers (1964, Alan Ladd's last film) and Le Mans (1971, with Steve McQueen).

Universal (in a similar move to their past ultimate edition release of Meet Joe Black [1998] when they also included the original version Death Takes a Holiday [1934]) will release the recent The Truth About Charlie (2002) in a two-disc set along with the original Charade (1963, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn). The April 1 release will apparently include anamorphic transfers and an audio commentary as well as other supplements. Even better, on May 6, we get a whole wave of classic material, dominated by James Stewart and director Anthony Mann: Night Passage (1957) and double features of Bend of the River (1952)/The Far Country (1955), The Rare Breed (1966)/The Redhead From Wyoming (1952), and Destry Rides Again (1939)/Winchester '73 (1950). Other titles are: Law and Order (1953, Ronald Reagan), Come September (1961, Rock Hudson), Duel at Silver Creek (1952, Audie Murphy), and Bedtime Story (1964, Marlon Brando). No specifications have been released as yet, but one could at least hope for inclusion of the audio commentary that James Stewart did for the laserdisc release of Winchester '73. All of the May releases will apparently be priced at a reasonable $19.95.

Disney's packed two-disc special edition release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is currently scheduled for May 13th (see the January 24th My Two Cents column here at The Digital Bits for complete details) and Disney's 1950 version of Treasure Island is expected April 29th.

Rumored releases for later in 2003 include Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948), both from Home Vision, and Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934) from New Yorker Video.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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